Summer, Swimming, and Swimmer’s Ear

Although it’s not officially summer yet, it sure feels like it around here. Kids and adults alike are headed for the pools and with that, we typically see an increase in cases of Swimmer’s Ear (aka Acute Otitis Externa). If you or your child has ever had this, you know it can be quite painful and a bit annoying until the infection has cleared.

So what exactly is Swimmer’s Ear and who gets it?

 Swimmer’s Ear is an infection of the external ear canal (the space leading up to the ear drum).

  • It’s caused by persistent water in the ear which lends itself to be easily scratched or irritated by any foreign object (cotton swab) or fingernail.
  • This break in the skin can easily become infected.
  • You don’t necessarily have to be a swimmer to get “swimmer’s ear”. Bathing can cause this if the ear canal is already scratched and prone to infection (common in children with eczema).
  • Most common in the summer months because high heat and humidity promote this type of bacterial infection. Combine that with prolonged water exposure (such as swimming) and you have a perfect set up for this type of infection.
  • Highest rates of swimmer’s ear occurs in children ages 5-9.

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear

  • The most common complaint is pain, especially when the ear is moved or tugged on.
  • Can also be painful to chew because of the movement around the affected ear.
  • Itching is another common symptom.
  • Children may complain that they can’t hear as well (due to swelling and discharge within the canal).
  • On inspection via otoscope, we see swelling, redness, and sometimes a white or yellow discharge.


  • Once your child has been diagnosed with swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), his doctor will prescribe antibiotic ear drops to be placed in his ear canal.
  • It’s important to complete the full course of these drops.
  • Use over the counter pain reliever in initial days to relieve discomfort until drops start to work their magic.
  • Your child should start to feel relief and symptoms improving within 24-48 hours after treatment has begun.
  • Keep your child’s ear as dry as possible until treatment is completed. If needed, cover head with shower cap, or delay shampooing hair until treatment is completed.
  • If your child must return to swimming before treatment has been completed (i.e. competitive swimmer), be sure he is fitted with proper ear plugs.
  • Oral antibiotics are not indicated unless the infection is severe, or your child has a co-existing bacterial infection elsewhere.

Prevention of Swimmer’s Ear

  • If your child has already had at least one episode of swimmer’s ear and is an avid swimmer, preventative steps can make a huge difference.
  • Be sure your child dries his head and ears completely after swimming or bathing. Avoid sticking fingers in ear though, this can cause trauma to the ear canal.
  • Have him tilt his head to each side, allowing each ear to drain completely.
  • Use hair dryer on lowest heat and lowest speed if needed to dry water in the ear canal.
  • Alcohol based ear drops (which you can find in almost any grocery store with a pharmacy section) can aid in drying out the ear canal after swimming.These should not be used in a child who has ear tubes.
  • One last word on prevention: do not use q-tips for your child’s ear. Not only does this remove naturally protective wax from your child’s ear, it could cause damage to her canal and/or ear drum.

Has your child been affected by Swimmer’s Ear? Do you have any prevention tips you would like to share?

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4 Responses to Summer, Swimming, and Swimmer’s Ear
  1. JDaniel4's Mom
    July 22, 2011 | 11:39 am

    We haven't yet! What great information to have if and when JDaniel does.

  2. A Mother's Love
    July 22, 2011 | 1:45 pm

    Love this post! Thanks for the info. What I worry about is dry drowning! I make my kids (ages 4, 6 & 7) wear life jackets ALL the time. When do you let them just "go in the water"? Right now, my husband and I never let them put their faces under water. When they do get some water in their mouths and cough, we freak out, thinking about the dry drowning! We worry about that.

    Thanks, Kelley

    • Chris
      March 23, 2012 | 7:17 am

      Kelley, Oh My Lord! I know you love your youngins but you are being way overprotective. Get them swim lessons so they are comfortable in the water. Let them scuba dive in the bathtub. Don’t let your issues become their issues. We love them so much that it scares us but you need to let them be normal kids.

  3. Juanita
    June 27, 2012 | 8:58 pm

    The risk of getting swimmer’s ear is the one thing that really bothers me about letting the kids spend too much time swimming in summer. My youngest son is prone to getting ear infection when he swims too long but he refuses to get out of the water before his older brothers so it is always a tussle. I try to take all the preventive measure and post care measures in an attempt to reduce the risk. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I have been using alcohol based ear drops though and that has helped tremendously. Swimmer’s Ear